The cloud and the Diogenes syndrome


The Diogenes syndrome is a behavior pattern generally associated with elderly people who live alone, a symptom of which is a pathological inability to throw things away. About a decade ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article (link in Spanish) about this in the context of people who hoard their emails, dividing them into a series of categories:

  • The auditor: Everything ever received must be carefully filed… one never knows when somebody is going to reminded that they sent such and such about such and such on such and such date, or when the corporate server will crash and the firm’s collective memory will have to be reconstructed from his or her files, thus converting him or her into some sort of corporate hero… At first glance, this person’s in tray looks clean and tidy, containing only emails waiting to be answered or processed. Everything else is carefully hidden away in folders. Every now and then, knowing that Outlook .pst archives become unstable once they get beyond a certain size, he files them carefully, transfers them to CD, and starts again from the last three months… In reality, he or she has never ever had to consult one of those CDs filed neatly on the shelf, but every afternoon, when work is done, it’s a great feeling knowing that they are there…
  • The Diogenes syndrome: We’ve all seen the headline: “…elderly person found dead in their home surrounded by tons of garbage.” These people keep everything. Everything. From the first mail they sent their girlfriend, who is now the mother of his children, to the junk mail that arrives everyday offering formidable extensions to certain parts of the human anatomy. Something prevents these kinds of people from distinguishing what is important and what not, but who knows, one day it may be useful for something… Their entry tray is filled with thousands of mails, none of them ordered, but he knows they are there, or believes they are, or at least those that arrived after the last time he dropped the computer or changed jobs…
  • The selective memory: a variation on the Diogenes syndrome and the auditor who probably started out normal, but whose computer exploded one day, leaving her an amnesiac. She wandered about aimlessly for a few days, asked everybody she knew to resend all their mails, and seeing that she was unable to rebuild her memory, decided to do so selectively. Now she only keeps the important stuff, but has no idea what would happen if her computer exploded again. She would wander around disoriented for a few days, and then back to normal.
  • The sentimentalist only keeps what is “really important”, the email with his work evaluation, one from the former girlfriend he found on Google, the letter accepting his article, the mail sacking everybody from that nice guy who worked in the office next door… he’s never looked at them again, but there they are, in a little folder hanging from his in-box, like yellowing photos in an old album…
  • The entropic doesn’t know what she’s kept, or where it is. Sometimes she groups together her vast in-tray, which includes spam, newsletters of every type, emails from friends, as well as professional stuff, and then carries out what in some circles might be called a purifying bonfire, or ethnic cleansing. She has different accounts that forward to each other, and intuitively knows where to find a particular mail, but the last time she tried, she spent so long doing so that she forgot what it was she was looking for…
  • The party animal keeps nothing. Why bother, we’re all going to die someday anyway, right? Her classifying system is based on emails that are not important, so we might as well erase them, and those that are important, in which case they’ll be resent… Sometimes people will berate her, asking, “what happened to that mail I sent asking for such and such?” But it’s always possible to blame technology. Her in-tray includes a few recent messages. That’s it. Nothing in the sent folder. She lives in the ether, but she’s happy, carefree… She laughs at the jokes her friends send, and sometimes she sends them on, but keeps no copies. Sometimes people stop talking to her, but she never understands why that guy who looks so familiar seems so upset…

But that was all a long time ago: a time when Microsoft’s ecosystems dominated the personal computer market, selling 90 percent of software. There was no internet access via cellphones, and the idea of storing things on the cloud only became a generalized concept once Gmail was made available to the general public in 2004.

Today, everything is in the cloud. So much so that we store things there without even thinking about it, simply by activating an option. The growth of broadband means that we store just about everything on the cloud, including files of size that would have been impossible back then. Over time, storage costs have fallen to prices that border on the ridiculous. In 1956, an IBM five-megabyte hard drive cost $50,000. Today, a three terabyte Seagate costs around $100.

The result is that we now have access to what a decade ago would have been called “unlimited space on the cloud” and we tend to be very lax about how we use it, as illustrated by the Fappening. Many of the celebrities involved had simply no idea that their photos were being automatically copied on to the cloud as the picture was being taken. When something that we are barely aware of (it just works!) operates automatically with no user intervention, it’s perfectly logical that we are going to fall into bad habits.

And that’s the really interesting thing here: in all honesty, how many times have we ever pulled something down from the cloud? Leaving aside the occasions when we replace our computers, a useful moment to have a spare copy of our hard drive, although to be honest I don’t really get it, is it really worth storing all the information we have on our devices? Personally, I keep a copy of my laptop’s hard drive on another drive that is linked to Time Machine, and only store presentations I am about to make, so as to avoid problems should my laptop break down. Obviously, blogs posts like this live in a server which has its own security copy and incremental backup procedures. But beyond that? Nothing. Despite knowing more about the internet’s storage tools and options than most of the population, I use them rarely.

Where is this overabundance of broadband and storage space taking us? To store not just that snap we took, but the seven previous attempts to get it right, on the cloud. To keep copies of things that in all likelihood we are never going to use again. In other words, a gigantic “just in case”. Among the categories mentioned above, most of us have fallen prey to the Diogenes syndrome to varying degrees, surrounded by piles of digital rubbish, among which of course are those one or two extremely personal items that any cracker with half a mind to it can access.

What sense does it make to store copies of that photo you sent to your significant other? None. As we have seen, the blame here lies not with the person who stored those photos, but the person who decided to violate a series of systems to get at them and circulate them, and upon whom we hope the full weight of the law will fall. Nobody would blame the person whose savings were stolen from a bank for putting their money there in the first place, or say that banks should be closed. But it might be an idea to ask ourselves if we really have to use all that broadband and storage space just because we can.

And the reason is because it serves no purpose. I have never once had to look through those CDs where I stored all those .pst files with the emails that I sent between 1990 and 1996, and I can’t think of any reason why I ever would have needed to access them.

Just because it is possible to store EVERYTHING, doesn’t mean that we have to store EVERYTHING. What’s more, as we have seen, storing EVERYTHING exposes us to situations that it is better to avoid.


(En español, aquí)